Gallows humor was in vogue Friday as the U.S. Bureau of Mines closed its regional office in Spokane.
In the converted warehouse on East Third between the Goodwill store and Costco, workers rolled cartloads of boxes down the hallways to an occasional rendition of “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s home from work we go” from Walt Disney’s “Snow White.”
Fitting, after all, because the Seven Dwarfs were miners.
“Bang Head Here,” advised a sign on a partially emptied file cabinet in one office. “Bureau of Mines RIP,” said the sweatshirts of some of the office workers-turned-movers.
Many employees seemed more resigned than bitter as they helped the bureau close out 85 years of mapping the nation’s mineral deposits and improving safety in its mines.
Congress and the Clinton administration are being short-sighted in trying to find savings by closing the tiny agency, they said.
“Taxpayers got a big bang for the buck when they had us working on things like (environmental) cleanup,” said geologist Dean Crandell. “Nobody could do it as efficiently as us.”
“There’s a lot of years, a lot of expertise that’s going to be scattered to the winds,” echoed Phil Moyle, a geologist who has worked some 23 years for the federal government.
The bureau’s voluminous records on Western mineral deposits will be sent to the National Archives office in Denver. Many of its books and pamphlets will be sent to the U.S. Geological Survey offices in Spokane.
The employees, however, are being laid off. About a third of the Spokane office’s staff of 75 will get jobs with other federal agencies. The rest are in limbo, looking for work.
“This is a real tough environment for geology people,” said Richard Grabowski, who until Friday ran the Spokane office.
Most mining companies are exploring in foreign countries, he said. The big companies cut their staffs in recent years as they restructured.
After years of being mentioned as a candidate for closure, some bureau employees said they were surprised when Congress followed through last year.
“Political waves come and go. I really just viewed it as another wave” the bureau would ride out, Moyle said.
Even in early 1995, with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt pushing from one side, and budget-balancing Republicans in Congress pushing from the other, some employees held out hope the bureau would be shrunk, not closed.
Geologist Tom Hillman, a 22-year veteran, turned down an offer for a severance package last spring.
“I thought we had a good shot at staying open, and I believed in the bureau’s mission,” said Hillman on Friday as he packed up maps he had collected during two decades’ of work.
With a master’s degree in geology, Hillman plans to get a teaching certificate and become a community college instructor. Maybe the maps will be good teaching aids somewhere down the road, he said.
The bureau’s closure was actually delayed one month by the budget stalemate. Halfway through their preparations to close, bureau employees were sent home on furlough with hundreds of thousands of other federal workers.
“It was like a hooked fish being played with,” said Crandell, “but that’s politics.”
By Friday afternoon, the anger at being closed and the frustration of getting just 90 days to collect and relocate 85 years of records was giving way to sadness.
“The office here has been a big family,” Crandell said. “It’s hard to say good-bye.”
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